Book Review by Heidi Simmons
“Suddenly, A Knock on the Door”
I am a big fan of the short story. In a busy world, when a little bit of time presents itself, a short story is great to have nearby for a quick escape. This is part one of a four-part series presenting terrific short story collections worth considering.
It’s a gift to be able to write content that is engaging, meaningful and entertaining with minimal characters, places and words. Short stories don’t always have a beginning, middle and end, but that is a big part of the appeal.
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 208 pages) is author Etgar Keret’s sixth short story collection. Keret was born and lives in Israeli. His parents are Holocaust survivors. Keret’s stories are immersed in Israeli life and culture. Though his stories contain familiar metaphors of everyday life, relationships and the challenges of being human and simply existing, the unfamiliar Israeli names and places remind the reader Israeli’s live under added stress from potentially hostel neighbors.
There are 35 stories varying in length from a page and a half to 20 pages. My favorite in the collection is Healthy Start. In this story, a broken-hearted man, Miron, regularly eats alone at a local café and begins to meet strangers who mistake him for the person they prearranged to meet at the café. He stands, shakes their hand and goes along with the conversation as if he knows what it’s all about — giving advice, making deals and solving problems. But as it turns out, not everything can be concluded amicably with talk alone.
There are several stories that are “magical realism” — a literary term where fanciful, whimsical and magical elements blend with the real world. Lieland is narrated by Robbie when he discovers all the lies he ever told are real and alive in Lieland. He meets his imaginary cancer-ridden aunt Beersheba who saved his ass when he fabricated and excuse for going AWOL. There is the made-up German Shepard he claimed he rescue mangled but alive after arriving two hours late for work. The actualization of his lies are so atrocious that he decides the next time he makes something up to get out of trouble, he will make it beautiful.
In Unzipping, Ella is making out with her boyfriend when her tongue is pricked and bleeds. Tsiki apologizes and denies it’s anything in his mouth. When he’s asleep, Ella investigates his mouth and discovers there is a zipper under his tongue. She unzips his body and discovers another man, much more to her liking — that is, only for a while.
Shkedi is reincarnated as a guava in Guava, and lives in fear of falling off the tree. He becomes a guava when an angel appears to him in the final forty seconds before the plane he’s on is about to crash. The angel gives him one wish. “World peace,” he says. It’s a new challenge for the angel, but the man indeed becomes a guava in a world of peace.
Bad Karma is about an insurance salesman who looses everything because he wasn’t insured when a suicide jumper lands on him at a café. After recovering from a blissful coma, he regains most of his health and becomes wealthier than ever selling insurance when he tells clients about his unbelievable experience.
The title story, Suddenly, A Knock on the Door, may be about author Keret himself. Two different men make their way into a young man’s home and force him — at gunpoint — to tell a story. The young man asks, “Why the guns?” One intruder says, “In this country, might makes right and it doesn’t matter if it’s about politics, or economics or a parking space. Brute force is the only language we understand.”
When the young man begins his story, he tells them about a writer: “He misses the feeling of creating something out of something. That’s right — something out of something. Because something out of nothing is when you make something up out of thin air, in which case it has no value. Anybody can do that. But something out of something means it was really there the whole time, inside you, and you discover it as part of something new, that’s never happened before.”
The gun-toting intruders claim he is not telling them a story! But the young man continues — “No story presents itself. Because the human condition the way he’s experiencing it right now doesn’t seem to be worth a story, and he’s just about to give up when suddenly…” You guessed it. There’s a knock on the door.
Etgar Keret is very good at making something out of something. Many of his stories include suicide and death, but they are not morose or depressing. His stories are a way of understanding our human fragility when death can come at any moment. His whimsy is childlike and endearing, but there is wisdom, maturity and layered meaning in his prose. There is always time for a short story, and good ones like Keret’s can be appreciated again and again.